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Full Circle

by Charles Lockwood '70

F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 wrote "There are no second acts in American lives." I know Fitzgerald is revered, but I think that he was wrong, particularly when it comes to me.

As a teenager in the 1960s, I became fascinated by history and architecture, especially old houses. My family lived in a 19th-century farmhouse in northwest Washington, D.C., surrounded by newer homes that had been built in the '20s. My parents were history-philes, and my mother was particularly interested in historic architecture.

The architectural past held me in thrall. I often visited historic neighborhoods in D.C., and one summer, years before the South's 19th-century neighborhoods were rediscovered, I talked my parents into visiting still slightly shabby Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

A lover of cities at an early age, I particularly admired 19th-century townhouses, which to me represented a time when cities were the focal point of American life. Nineteenth-century townhouse also evoked for me an urbane and civilized lifestyle, a romantic nostalgia for "the good old days." Finally, as a teenager who hated mowing the lawn — the promise of a lawnmower-free life.

As a Princeton student in the late 1960s, I devoured New York Times articles about the bold "pioneers" who were buying and restoring long-neglected New York brownstones in then run-down neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Chelsea in Manhattan, and Park Slope in Brooklyn.

Cutting class lectures as often as I dared, I made daytrips to New York, where I walked for miles, gazing at the elegant red brick 1820s' and 1830s' Federal-style rowhouses, flamboyant 1850s' and 1860s' Italianate brownstones, and grand 1890s' Renaissance Revival townhouses.

The more I explored the brownstone neighborhoods, the more I wanted to know about their architecture and history. On day during the summer of 1969, I went to the library on West 53rd Street and asked for a book on New York brownstones.

"We don't have one," the reference librarian said. "It's never been written."

As I left, I decided to write it myself. That fall, I went to my faculty adviser, Professor Donald D. Egbert '24, of the art department, and told him I wanted to write a book about the architectural and social history of New York brownstones. Without blinking, Egbert suggested, "Why don't you write your thesis on New York brownstones, and the book can become an outgrowth of your thesis? You'll have to learn how to write and research better, but I can teach you that. And we'll have to get you released from your class schedule, so you can concentrate full-time on the project, but I can have Dean Sullivan take care of that."

Having a few years before suffered a stroke, Egbert was nearing the end of his life-long academic career at Princeton, and I knew I was lucky to have him for a teacher. One day, when we were together in his office, he said: "You know, every few years I have a special student whom I decide to mentor." He mentioned a half-dozen well-known Princeton graduates, including Thomas Hoving '53 *60, who went on to become a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a magazine editor, and a bestselling author, as well as Charles W. Moore *57, who became a renowned architect and professor at Princeton. Egbert then looked at me and said, "You're the last one I'm going to be able to do this for." Stunned by his faith in me I worked even harder.

Two other Princetonians also helped: Bob Mayer '70, whose black and white photographs were illustrated my thesis; and Robert A. Sincerbeaux '36, a Wall Street attorney and president of a small foundation interested in historic architecture that gave me a grant after I graduated so I could turn the thesis into a book.

I was 23 years old when Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row House 1783-1929, illustrated with photographs by Bob Mayer (McGraw Hill) was published, and it changed my life. Instead of going on to law school or becoming a college professor, I embarked on a writing career.

By the time I was in my mid-30s, I had written six other books and many articles. But over time I realized I couldn't make a living writing about architecture and cities. For the last 20 years I've been a consultant, writing articles and reports for large real estate companies, architecture firms, and accounting firms on everything from urban planning to tax laws and the telecommunications industry. The pay was good, the people fair and pleasant, but as I turned 50 I faced the fact that I wasn't doing what I really wanted to be doing. The sudden death of one of my Princeton roommates two years ago was a wake-up call about the shortness of life.

Then, good fortune entered in. Rizzoli wanted to reissue Bricks and Brownstone in an expanded edition. Working on the new edition was both a poignant experience — many of the people who had helped me with the original were dead, including Egbert and Sincerbeaux — and also a wake-up call. I was making a good living as a consultant, but I was far from the path both Egbert and Sincerbeaux had seen for me.

While I continued both to consult and to work on the new edition, a friend invited me to breakfast, figuratively grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, and gave me a good shaking. "People are spending millions of dollars to buy Manhattan townhouses and huge sums to restore them," she said. "Architects are doing only so-so restoration jobs. You've written the only book on this subject. You're the expert. Why aren't you advising homeowners about their brownstone's architecture and how to restore these houses to their original appearance?"

Less than a year later, I'm starting to live my dream — getting paid well to work on what I love most. I am already providing restoration advice on a number of historic Manhattan and Brooklyn townhouses. I'm also planning to conduct additional research and write an entirely new edition of Bricks and Brownstone in the next five years.

New York brownstones were my first love — and a life-long love — that I was lucky to find at such an early age, and have reclaimed today. Encouraged at home by my other half, Carlos Boyd, by many friends, and by my mother, I am transitioning out of my consulting practice and building a new career around my passion. At a time when many of my classmates are getting ready to retire, I count myself fortunate that I have this opportunity to write a truly satisfying Second Act.

Charles Lockwood lives in Topanga Canyon in Southern California and spends much of his time in New York. His web-site is www.charleslockwood.com.